Business 2.0, Design, Sustainability

Digitally connecting to nature

I recently spotted a short doco/interview piece where Sir David Attenborough meets US President Barack Obama for a short interview on Sir David’s 89th birthday (the full interview is embedded below).

One part of the exchange caught my attention. At around 14:15, Sir David says:

Well, it is an extraordinary paradox isn’t it, that the United Nations tells us that over 50% of the human population on the planet are urbanised, which means that to some degree they are cut off from the natural world. And after all some people are totally cut off, they don’t see a wild creature from dawn to dusk unless it’s a rat or a pigeon. And yet at the same time, mass media can inform those people what the natural world is … if they don’t understand the workings of the natural world, they won’t take the trouble to protect it. That’s one of the roles that the media should have. Of maintaining a link between the population and understanding what goes on the natural world. Because why should they give up money, or taxes come to that, to protect the natural world, unless they actually care about it.

And later (~16:30) , President Obama indicates:

…what we’ve been doing is trying to initiate ways to get more children and young people to use the [national] parks, and as you said, so many of these kids are growing up cut off. They’re sitting on the couch, playing video games. If they experience nature its through a television screen, and just getting them out there so that they’re picking up that rock and finding that slug. They’re seeing that bird with colours that they’ve never seen before.

The discussion continues along these lines, the gist being that we need kids to get out into the natural world, discover it, to regain that connection to the natural world. And, I would suggest, to rediscover the connection between our individual actions and the impacts they have. For example, we flick on the switch to use power from burning coal a long distance away, creating pollution etc. If we had to burn that coal in our house for our energy use, we’d very quickly understand the ramifications. But we are so removed, this impact is barely even considered.

However, I’m not sure that expecting young people, or even older members of the population, to “get out into nature” is the only response. As Attenborough notes, right now, a majority (54% in 2014) of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and this is tipped to grow substantially according to the UN:

Today [2014], 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa…

I’ve seen suggestions that cities are more sustainable at supporting a larger human population than other models of living. Is it realistic to expect this growing population to “get out into nature”? If the answer is no, does this mean that “nature on screens” is the only way this can be achieved?

There’s been a lot of interesting work being done in eco-visualisation in recent years that attempt to make a strong connection between domestic/urban resource use and impact. Some great examples that come to mind:

As part of the IBM/Fast Company Biomimicry Challenge, Smart Design put together a short but illustrative video about how the biomimicry principles of feedback loops could be made manifest in an urban environment:

Another example is a cute campaign concept by WWF regarding paper towel usage (more information at Inhabitat and Ads of the World):

A paper towel dispenser which visually highlights the impact on forests.

And some of my favourites come from STATIC, highlighted in the Visual Voltage exhibition—specifically their Flower Lamp, which “wilts” the more energy that is used:

A lamp that 'wilts' as it uses more electricity

And the Power Aware cord, which glows brighter the more energy that’s consumed (this is the image at the start of this post).

An electricity power board whose cable glows brighter as more electricity is used

(Hat tip to Flowing Data for first bringing these ideas to my attention.)

These examples all make visible the invisible, and reconnect our actions, conceptually at least, with the impact they’re having in the world.

On this basis, I can’t help but think digital technologies have great potential to play a positive role in responding to Obama’s question. To harness our seemingly insatiable drive for new technology in a way that re-instates this sense of connection between action and impact. And no, the irony—using digital tech to emulate a connection to the natural world—is definitely not lost on me!

I wonder what opportunities would emerge in responding to the design question:

How might we engender a meaningful connection between an urban dweller and their impact on the natural environment through ambient mechanisms that link resource consumption to environmental health?

And what would the business model look like?


Business 2.0, Design, Sustainability

Business 3 point oh?

Do you remember when “Web 2.0”, “Enterprise 2.0”, “Business 2.0″ was the (overhyped, much maligned) buzz word of the moment? It referred to the shift in the business world towards integrating social media and networking—both technologies but also models of engagement in and outside an organisation—into their operations.

Organisation ROI, Purpose, Network models

I was thinking about this recently, and realised that this is a large part of what Zumio is all about—not so much on the “social networking in the enterprise” sense (which would potentially link more to the Shared Value principle of “Redefining productivity in the value chain”, but more in the “Reconceiving products and markets” sense. Tossing around some ideas the other day, I jotted down the following Venn diagram (I’m a designer, what more is there to say?) that captures some of the essence of this thinking.

Seeing these “three pillars”, and building on the idea of “Business 2.0”, I thought what if it was called “Business 3.0”—with 1.0 being about returns, 2.0 being about the network model, and 3.0 connecting this to social responsibility and purpose.

I thought to myself, no doubt someone’s already tried to claim the term. And of course, they have. Fast Company use the term to define social and environmental responsibility. And the University of Queensland Business School put forward a Core Capabilities—Partnership, Community, Transparency, Trust—that look remarkably similar to some things I’ve written before ;)

When I look around, I can find lots of beacons that crossover between two of these spheres. For example, BCorps and shared value combine the ideas of purpose and return. Recent and up-coming conferences like the Social Good Summit and Purpose.do also explore this space. “Enterprise 2.0”–orientation, and considerations of the networked organisation (such as that outlined by Tim O’Reilly in his article Networks and the Nature of the Firm point to the overlap of the network organisation driving returns.

But I’ve not seen a lot of consideration about how these three sphere’s combine.

Perhaps there’s an assumption that any competitive organisation nowadays has to be digitally enabled, and thus, any forward thinking for-purpose organisation has that aspect down. But my experience is that this is far from reality.

And there is real power in combining all three.

The on-demand economy (I’m with commentators that eschew the term “sharing economy” for such enterprises) is a probably the best example of how these three elements can be combined, with commercial success.

Many of the biggest success stories in this space have significant environmental and social flow-on effects (many of them positive). AirBNB (unlocking value in underutilised space in the built environment, (at its best) enabling stronger social connections), Uber (unlocking the value of vehicles and, again, (at its best) enabling stronger social connections), iTunes + music sharing services like Spotify (reduction in packaging and materials use making CDs, transporting physical product etc.) and car rental services such as GoGet—serve as examples of digital technology supporting the process of dematerialisation.

Some other examples, looking from a different angle, are enterprises like Chuffed and StartSomeGood point in this direction, leveraging network organisation in the form of crowdfunding to support social projects. (One could argue that Kickstarter’s decision to become a BCorp puts them in a similar position.)

Each of these examples creates positive social and/or environmental outcomes and rely on network organisation models to achieve their goals, enabled by digital technology (that is, digital technology reduces the transaction cost for co-ordinating effort and value creation).

In each of case, the “digital” component is more than just the “product”. Uber and AirBNB are not just an app. The “apps” they create are an integral component to the overall success of the model, but it is the underpinning models of operation and value creation that are the key to their success.

When we say “we help for-purpose organisations build products and services that thrive in a connected world”, this is what we mean… It’s about creating a business strategy that harnesses network effects, supported by digital technology, to achieve meaningful results. Regardless of what we call it—“Business 3.0” or something else—we’re excited by the possibility of bringing more of these types of services to life, supporting the co-creation of value between organisations and their stakeholders or customers.

Business 2.0, Sustainability

Definition of shared value

This is a cross-posting of a post originally published on the IDX Backstage blog. Note that Ben from SVA has commented on the original post.

Over at the SVA Blog Ben McAlpine asks the question Shared Value – Is it worth the hype?.

Specifically, he notes a colleague asking how Shared Value is different to “smart business”.

Shared Value, is of course, smart business. But Ben’s description of Shared Value I think has an issue that I see in an awful lot in discussions about the topic. It touches on only the first of 3 pillars that are outlined in Porter and Kramer’s HBR paper that launched the term into the business mindset.

Continue reading


Alex Laskey at TED

In a number of my workshops and presentations I’ve used the example of some research into the power of harnessing social norms to drive energy efficiency. And also how these same norms can have unexpected rebound effects. In preparation of a workshop I’m running in a few weeks’ time I came across Alex Laskey’s fantastic talk on the subject. Well worth a watch—he does a fantastic job of explaining how it all works and what they’ve found.

Business 2.0, Design, Sustainability

What will replace A Better Place?

A Better Place battery swap station

I was disappointed to learn about the liquidation of electric car infrastructure provider A Better Place earlier today.

I really admired Shai Agassi’s vision for this business, and have highlighted it as a great example of both social innovation/shared value (business with a social/environmental benefit at its heart) and design thinking (replicating the convenience/experience of a service station for the electric vehicle age) in presentations and workshops that I’ve facilitated. Naysayers will no doubt latch on to this event as reasoning for a) why social innovation/shared value doesn’t work and/or b) why electric vehicles are not going to succeed (case in point).

They externalised and amortised one of the key drivers of higher costs of electric cars (commentary I’ve seen puts the battery at about 20–30% of the cost of the vehicle). The model also presented real business incentives to improve longevity and management of battery technology waste due to the side-effects of product service systems. Batteries could be more easily rolled out to customers over time as well, as new technology came to market without modification to the vehicle.

I also admired the multi-faceted nature of the business—which proposed not only technology for battery swapping, but also more general charging infrastructure. I saw an interview with Agassi where he described A Better Place not as a charging or battery company, but as an energy company. They saw the potential for electric cars playing a significant role in smart grid infrastructure—a vision much broader than just cars.

The article linked at the outset of this post doesn’t go into a lot of detail, other than to suggest public uptake of electric vehicles was slower than anticipated, and gaining automotive supplier support was a key barrier.

It’s perhaps ironic that a company set up to remove one of the key barriers to electric vehicle sales—the “range anxiety” issue—was unable to get sufficient support from automotive manufactures, who report lower-than-expected uptake of electric vehicles as a reason not to invest more. Seems like a classic chicken and egg conundrum, that A Better Place was looking to solve and externalise for the manufacturers. Given only one vehicle manufacturer—Nissan Renault—got behind the initiative, it does beg the question just how serious car companies are about really advancing this market. That said, even leader Tesla Motors hadn’t gotten behind the approach, as far as I know, and they certainly can’t be accused of not promoting/supporting an electric vehicle future. (I would be especially interested in Tesla’s comment/take on A Better Place’s closure.)

I suspect the biggest problem was simply trying to launch too early to support an immature industry. That is to say they were simply ahead of their time. Electric vehicle technology is in its relative infancy, and standards and technologies are evolving rapidly. I suspect it was difficult to get manufacturers to commit to a standard given the many different configurations and challenges related to A Better Place’s approach. Battery technology, in particular, is rapidly evolving.

And placement of batteries within a floor-pan is not as simple as finding a place for a petrol tank. For example, some manufacturers have layered them across the floor-pan. Others have placed them behind the seat. Others, still, have them placed in various locations across the vehicle to balance weight and driving dynamics.

I’ve not had a moment to review further commentary on the closure, so I’ll be interested to learn more in the coming weeks/months as more is written about A Better Place’s experience, as no doubt will happen. I’d love to read comment from those close to the project, with the benefit of a little distance in time, what lessons were learned.

I have said in the past I don’t think hydrogen fuel cells are coming any time soon (I see this as a bit of a red herring—a future that will perpetually “just around the corner” to give manufacturers and excuse for not backing alternatives). And while battery technology is improving at a rapid clip, it will be some time before charge times reduce to minutes, instead of hours. Short of a miracle breakthrough (which is a potential, but still not something we can “bank” on). Will charge time become a non-issue as range increases? I don’t think it will—certainly not in the public’s perception.

So something like A Better Place will be needed if electric vehicles are to achieve widespread up-take in a non-urban/fleet environment, even in the short term. Given A Better Place’s experience, I’m wondering what new venture/approach will step up to take its place?